Revisiting Firefly, Episode 5: “Safe”

In TV by ScottD5 Comments

ScottD: As we move into our latest installment in the Big Damn Discussion of the Firefly series, I would like to say again how interesting and useful this exercise is. The three-headed view prevents getting stuck in a rut, and I for one am seeing the series in a whole new light, not only the show’s strengths but also its weaknesses. Though we are not yet halfway through the episodes, I feel like I have already learned a lot that will come in useful when it comes time to develop another space western series. (Hear that, Joss? The team is assembled, the gauntlet is thrown down.)

I actually don’t have much to say about this episode. <pause for startled gasps> But I feel this episode has a lot to say about the series as a whole, what it was about and perhaps even why it didn’t make it, so I can find some words. (Ha! Fooled you.) There were also a couple of things nagging me about this episode, questions that were answered for me this time through.

I’ve (politely, not with fan-drool zeal) pushed Firefly on a variety of people, and it turned out some of them had tried it and given up. Always curious about why stories work-or-don’t, I asked them why they had given up. “Spaceships and horses? Sixguns and lasers?” were the typical replies. And this time through, looked at with fresh eyes, I can see better what they meant.

Tanzi: Coming into this as the Firefly rookie I can affirm that the “Old West with spaceships” thing can be confusing. It’s the reason I never watched the show the first time around. I tuned into a random episode, saw the cowboy stuff cutting to a space scene and wrote it off as just another lame attempt at an SF show by a cynical network. The two elements remind me of those shitty mash up comics I always see at Comic Con: “Frankenstein Lawyer”, “CSI Transylvania”, “Zombie Sherlock Holmes”, the kind of thing that made me avoid comics for years. It put me off Firefly for years too but I gave it a shot based on Whedon’s reputation, and the fact that I saw Serenity on HBO and enjoyed it.

I noticed this show was particularly heavy on the Mandarin dialogue. I’ve been on the fence about that all along; I like that they had the balls to have characters speak Mandarin without explanation but at the same time it can be confusing and now I feel like it’s a bit of a nerdy affectation. OK, fine, I can accept that China had a space program and a hand in colonizing the planets. It’s the most populous nation on Earth, it makes sense they’d be at the front of the line for exploring space. But if that’s so, how come we haven’t seen any Chinese characters? We get Badger and his Cockney accent, despite no one else in the show having an accent like that, but we haven’t seen a Chinese actor in a single speaking role. Wouldn’t they have a larger presence? I’ve seen Asians in the background, and an Asian influence in costumes and scenery and set design. But no Asian actors. As I said, the Mandarin is starting to look like an affectation rather than a well-conceived bit of world building.

ScottD: The show might get to it later, but you’re right — where are the Chinese characters? We’ve seen an Oriental street gang around the docks, we saw a couple of obviously Asian people in Paradiso and at least one of the troopers in that episode was Asian. But those were fringe instances. If the Chinese influence is so pervasive, why are all the Alliance officers we’ve seen European? Maybe it’s one of the things that might have been revealed later on if the series had gone longer. But now you’ve got me noticing the lack.

This episode, most strongly so far, points up the extreme disparities between life on the Core planets and life out on the fringe. But the disparities are presented as so extreme that they can be off-putting, hard to accept in the same fictional universe. The Old West town (with its little points of “the future”, unfortunately including a plastic car that wouldn’t look out of place on Romper Room) is one thing. But inbred hill people straight out of Deliverance is something else, quite literally the superstitious villagers-with-torches we know from the old horror films.

ScottP: I’ll be honest, this episode feels very pointless to me other than trying to build the River/Simon relationship, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table even as that (except that we learn River was pretty much an annoying nut even as a little girl, before the Alliance got their mitts on her). I’ve always felt like Simon and River were the weak links — not the actors, by any means, but the characters. Summer Glau and Sean Maher always seemed to swing for the fences but the roles themselves were a little thankless, River most of all: she had three settings, childlike, batshit crazy, and brutally efficient. Those are interesting elements but they don’t necessarily make River a character — she feels more like a sketch than a painting. She and Simon were essentially the MacGuffin of the series, something to drive things forward aside from the crew performing various missions of theft/smuggling/whatever. I’m sure we would’ve gotten a little more out of them if the show had continued but at this point there wasn’t enough there to carry the better part of an episode, and while we learn a little of their past, none of that really helps us understand who they are now.

I agree with ScottD as to the hill folk, too — they’re so broadly written and stereotypical that the whole thing just feels lazy.

Also, I have the same reaction towards this episode that I do to a lot of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation — although the cause of that reaction annoys me far more in TNG: I don’t wanna live on any of these planets with the fruity dancing and the flute playing. The reason it bothers me less on Firefly is because of the established Old West setting, but I wanna throw things when I see people dressed in their goddamn peasant garb on Next Generation (spouting off on the reasons for my dislike of ST:TNG could take up a lot of your valuable time, however, so I’ll lay off that for now). I realize that in “Safe” the fruity dancing and flute playing is designed specifically to create a sense of calm and comfort for Simon and River (and us, the audience), but I find it just as annoying in its own way as the phony-baloney high-society affectations of the party in “Shindig.”

ScottD: The wedding/celebration/turnip festival/whatever does give an excuse for River to dance — Summer Glau was a dancer before she was an actress, and it is fun to watch River study the pattern of the steps and then fling herself into the dance, for the first time really relaxed and fulfilled. I like how she makes those boots look light.

It’s nice to see River smile. And I’ll just bet that ol’ Joss has a hard time resisting something that’ll make Summer Glau smile.

I think overall we are supposed to accept that the expanding wave of settlement onto newly-terraformed planets results in a very low standard of living until the settlers can start producing enough to be able to afford goods from the Core planets. (The settlers may actually be in debt just to be there, a pattern not uncommon in our past.) And if you can’t afford imports, homespun fabric and local crafts and low-tech tools make sense. People who ask why Mal doesn’t have a laser ignore the fact that lasers are expensive and cantankerous and need power packs, whereas a well-made sixgun can last a fella a lifetime and can be produced and repaired locally. (There are Afghanis right now turning out very good rifles, in caves, using hand tools and simple forges.)

ScottP: And again, those things work on Firefly but not so much on ST:TNG where, unlike the false Utopia of the Alliance, we have the full-on wine-and-cheese Utopia of the Federation, where no one wants for anything but people still work as waiters at snooty bistros. With the replicators and whatnot on TNG, everything is an affectation.

ScottD: People grex a lot about horses and spaceships in the same series (Serenity buzzing the horses is, in fact, the final image of the credits, sharing the screen with Joss’s name) but horses have advantages over powered vehicles — as Robert Heinlein pointed out decades ago (in Time Enough For Love) vehicles require manufactured fuel and repair parts, whereas horses fuel themselves and, given time, produce more horses. Just because a settler was delivered on a spaceship doesn’t mean they can count on resupply by same. So they have to have technologies that they can maintain themselves until they get rich enough to afford imports.

And do we really have to mention the wild mustang as the symbol for the last freedoms of the American West? I didn’t think so.

Tanzi: This brings up something that’s started to bother me. We’re talking about a system with many planets and inhabited moons. Does it really make financial sense to transport a few dozen head of cattle literally millions of miles to another planet? Really? I’m usually a lot more forgiving of things like this, I understand it’s a TV show and they need to take shortcuts to make an interesting story but discussing them with you guys is making me look at things a bit more critically.

I have less of a problem with things like old-fashioned weapons and horse-drawn carriages. They absolutely make sense in the context of colonizing planets with no infrastructure and an unreliable supply network.

ScottD: Yeah… How can the financial situation be so wonky that regular goods don’t get through but our crew can make a profit on smuggling? It’s hard to figure how a small herd of cattle can be “contraband.”

But another problem is the social setup — even allowing for the hardships of settlement “Safe” presents a view so skewed, so extreme, that it is a bit hard to swallow. I can rationalize the culture we see by thinking, “OK, special-interest groups, religious and political, would try to settle together, like the Amish or the Mennonites. And if there was a community that had been isolated for a while, their traits might become exaggerated.” Eric Frank Russell (one of my favorite SF authors) wrote a book called The Great Explosion (1962) that explored just that notion — a cheap interstellar drive had been invented, and every splinter group on Earth looked for worlds where they could do things Their Way. The book comes in hundreds of years later with the explorations of a ship from Earth trying to find the wayward colonies and bring them under an Alliance-style umbrella. In typical Russell fashion, they find the descendants of colonists who were convicts, nudists, and philosophers — all of them condensations and exaggerations of the groups who originally landed. (Come to think of it, this exodus-from-Earth sounds really familiar — I wonder if Joss had read this book.)

The one big problem when comparing the two is this: whereas in the Russell novel the “lost” cultures had been out of touch for centuries, in Firefly we are shown instantaneous communications between planets. But out in the boonies we don’t see indications that this communication exists. Products are one thing, communications are another. Can’t stop the signal, and even the most insular communities get affected by popular media — kids living in villages in India still know who Michael Jackson is. And, if there is any sort of trade credit, wear t-shirts bearing his likeness.

I know that the extremes are presented for dramatic effect — the stripping of the rabbit carcass at the beginning of the episode establishes a brutal threat. But, except for “lost tribes” living in the Amazon, communications affect everyone on our planet, even subsistence farmers now have cellphones, and it is hard to accept that these hillpeople could be so thoroughly isolated.

Tanzi: I think the disparities would have made more sense if they had thrown in a line or two about these outer planets going years without an official re-supply. I seem to remember Star Trek:TNG would do that occasionally, as a way to explain the ignorant settlers on some colony world.

ScottD: To be fair, we are nitpicking a series that never really got a chance to catch its stride; most series don’t really thoroughly shake down until the second season. I suspect that Joss et al intended to give us some of these insights in bits and pieces as the show went on but, knowing they might get the axe at any time, they threw a bunch of stuff into the first scripts.

All the more reason, actually, for them to add some of the explanations you suggest, Tanzi — just a few lines to get us thinking that they thought about it.

But Joss (I just know you’re reading these) we’re nitpicking because we care.

ScottP: I was just talking to ScottD about this very thing — in a way, I feel sort of guilty nit-picking a show that I love so much and wildly enjoy; just thinking about the show got me to craving a Cobb salad (in honor of Jayne, of course). But really, out of 14 episodes, I can think of two off the top of my head that seem pretty weak (“Safe” being the weakest). That might not seem like a particularly good average until you consider that a “weak” episode of Firefly is still a thing of beauty thanks to the actors, the characters and the dialogue.

ScottD: On this viewing, I did for the first time notice an interesting bit: when the hillmen bring Simon and River into the town, there are quick glimpses of a propaganda-style mural, something about “See Tomorrow Today”. So we get the suggestion that these folks are the result of some kind of decrepit utopian community.

Nagging Question Answered, Number 1: There was something about this episode that kept bothering me. How did the hillpeople know Simon was a doctor? I figured it was something said in the store, but I watched that part carefully and there was no clue given. I went back through all of the preceding scenes and there was still nothing, then the third time through I finally figured it out: when Mal and Simon are talking near the temporary corral, Mal refers to Simon as “Doctor”. During that scene there is a rustle in the bushes, which they make a point of showing us Mal reacting to. So that must be the hillpeople we saw in the intro, eavesdropping from the bushes. (I also checked the official Firefly episode companion guide, and there was an editing-room-floor scene that showed the hillpeople saying, “Hey, a doctor!” The final cut on this episode is considerably different from the original script.)

Tanzi: I had the same thought. I didn’t even realize it was the Deliverance guys who threw the hood over Simon. I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes.

ScottD: Then I’m slow the same way. The first two times I saw this episode I thought it was some townspeople who had snatched Simon. I actually remember thinking, “So, the whole bit with the rabbit-skinning was just a throwaway.” I guess guys wearing homespun all look alike to me.

Tanzi: The entire scene at the cattle corral seemed a little off for some reason. Why didn’t the posse arrest Jayne and Mal? An illegal transaction had obviously just taken place. I assume they were only interested in the buyers for a prior crime and maybe they know their world needs the cattle so they look the other way there.

ScottD: Y’know, I too wondered why our guys didn’t get hauled in with everyone else, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a case of look-the-other-way. If the distribution of goods really is so unbalanced, then the lawmen might not care who brought the cattle to town (just so long as they got a steak out of it.)

Speaking of the earlier scene in the store: Poor Kaylee. In the last episode, she caught it from Mal because he was frustrated after talking with Inara. In this episode, she catches it from Simon because he is frustrated after talking with Mal. And each time her reaction is transparent and we want to punch the guy who made her feel that way. And each time the woman who witnesses it visually punches the guy who did it — the scenes are basically identical, with the guy getting a “Nice Job, Asshole” look from first Zoe and then Inara.

 

Kaylee’s outfit in this scene has a sort of “fierce rabbit” logo on it — I’m surprised I never noticed it before because it is curved around her left breast.

I mentioned in the last post that “Shindig” shows the characters pulling together as a crew. In this episode, we see the process continuing; Mal has to firm-hand Simon first on the ship, then again down by the corral. But each time it is not how Mal would treat a passenger but as he would any recalcitrant crewmember he needed to get back in line. (With Jayne reacting gleefully not just because Simon was getting grief, but because this time he wasn’t the focus of it.) This is pointed up at the end of the episode, when Simon asks Mal why he came back for him: “You’re on my crew. Why we still talking about this?”

"You might not want to mistake it for a suggestion."

A nice little bit I had never appreciated before: we see Jayne industriously working on polishing something, and we realize it is the coins they got from the cattle deal. It is so perfectly characteristic:

 

Tanzi: It’s the small character moments that make us love Jayne. Going through Simon’s stuff, making fun of his diary, stealing his money. Normally we’d hate a character for doing that but Adam Baldwin is just too likable as Jayne. We know Jayne is an amoral bully but we love him anyway.

ScottD: In the Official Companion volume — hey, I just got the Inara connection — for the first part of the series (see at the end of the post) Joss Whedon reveals that some of the scenes in the original shooting script were not used and the episode came in short, so he hurriedly wrote the scenes with Jayne rummaging through the Tams’ stuff and then later putting their belongings back, and gave the scenes to Adam Baldwin at the last second. Whedon says he believes that they are some of the best scenes in the whole series, and credits Baldwin’s ability to step up to the plate.

I actually knew a guy sorta like Jayne Cobb and he wasn’t always nice to be around, but Baldwin’s portrayal of him is a marvel. Jayne’s simple self-centeredness lends him a certain innocence, and also gives him room to learn and grow. (Which, it just occurs to me, puts him in nice contrast to most of the other characters, who don’t so much have things to learn as they have mysteries to reveal.) The expression on Jayne’s face when he encounters Simon after dumping the Tams’ stuff back is golden — he looks like a little kid telling Mom that he didn’t eat all the cookies.

It wasn't me. I didn't do it. Must have been my invisible friend.

ScottD: Another nice bit is when the woman-in-the-turban tells Simon that a house is waiting for them; we see on Simon’s face a fleeting consideration of what it might mean to have a place to be where he could be a doctor, and “safe”. A subtle piece of acting from Sean Maher.

This is especially important in light of what we have been shown elsewhere about how River and Simon grew up, how Independents were the bad guys when they played and now they are living among them. They have lost safety, and the promise of it is always tempting — hence the title of the episode. (The fact that they grew up behind a security fence also says something about them, and the society they came from.)

Nagging Question Answered, Number 2: This episode always gives me a sense of deja vu, and I finally figured out why. The arrival in the town, the superstition, the persecution — it’s all straight out of an episode of Kung Fu. But instead of solving the problem with philosophy and feet, the problem is solved with Big Damn Guns and Jayne again hanging from a harness. (With the disturbing idea that it is not God’s will but Jayne’s that is involved…)

Tanzi: Funny you should mention Kung Fu, I thought the guy who played the Patron looked an awful lot like a latter day David Carradine.

The whole business with River being accused of witchery really rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed to come out of nowhere, there was no indication that the villagers were so rabidly anti-witch. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I recently read an interview with Whedon where he said he was an atheist; fine, most people seem to identify with that these days, I’d say I’m agnostic myself. But we only see a few references to some kind of religion in the townsfolk. It goes from that to “burn the witch!” in the blink of an eye and I felt it was Whedon’s little dig at religion, that of course ignorant folk who believe in religion are so superstitious as to burn a young girl for being able to read minds. Like I said, I’m probably reading too much into it. They just needed a convenient crisis for the Firefly crew to disrupt in the nick of time.

"Y'all see the man hanging from the spaceship with the really big gun?"

ScottD: The extreme religiosity and superstition could be an indication that each of the colonies was settled by a different culture or splinter group, gone all inbred and exaggerated. (I refer the good folks out there to the Comments after the preceding episode post, for “Shindig”, where Craig Butler provides some very interesting insight on land-based financial structures and there is some discussion of this.) Which could lead to some very interesting storylines for our characters, and might even explain what the Alliance is trying to Ally. Or maybe Joss just did the whole episode so he could use the line, “Yeah, but she’s our witch.”

"Yeah, but she's our witch. So cut her the hell down."

One thing I like about this episode is we start to see the increasing effect that life aboard Serenity has on Simon & River — they are both wearing brighter colors, and River has started cussin’. We also see some of the strength that Simon has underneath his pretty ways: though he lets himself be pushed around some, he fiercely and effectively takes on three hillpeople when River is endangered.

ScottP: Agreed, so maybe I was a little too hard on the episode failing as an attempt to develop Simon and River.

ScottD: Speaking of costuming that isn’t homespun, this is where we start to see more of Jayne’s distinctive t-shirts. His look is otherwise military-surplus, practical streetwear for the muscle-thug-on-the-go, but his shirts are his trademark. After the show’s cancellation there was a thriving fan trade in copies of the shirts; when the Serenity movie was announced Universal cracked down on unlicensed marketing of the designs. I am sorry that I didn’t get some of those early shirts, because the fan-produced designs were usually more carefully and accurately done — the official releases tended to have smaller artwork (easier/cheaper to make) than the screen-worn ones, and included the “Serenity” logo. However, of late there are some better ones coming out, including the “Fighting Elves #28” design that Jayne is wearing in the image above.

I spent some time a while ago talking about my tightpants, so (as I sit here in my “Browncoat – I Aim To Misbehave” t-shirt) it seems only fair to give someone else time. ScottP, you wearing your Fighting Elves shirt today? Maybe I should ask before I out you like that, but you should ‘fess up.

ScottP: As it happens, I’m wearing my Kamen Rider Dragon Knight t-shirt at the moment, but I do love my Fighting Elves shirt and wear it proudly. One thing I like about Jayne’s shirts from the show — you wear one in real life and it’s like you’re drawing your half of the little Christian fish in the sand: if someone knows the shirt, you know they’re a kindred soul.

Tanzi: That reminds me, I saw a tweet from Jewel Staite the other day that perfectly illustrates the relationship between the Firefly cast and their fans:

Jewel Staite: Dear whoever's car this is: You just rocked my saturday afternoon a little bit.. http://yfrog.com/h834fyij

ScottD: Non sequitur, but I have to work it in:

Not to be edging into kinky territory here, but I could watch Zoe walk away between cowflops all day long.

"So what does that make us?" "Big Damn Heroes, Sir!"

ScottP: To me, the absolute best thing about “Safe” is the short epilogue with everyone sitting down to dinner aboard Serenity. That little moment says more about the characters than anything that happened in the bulk of the episode itself: they’re a family, with all the oddball eff-uppery that sometimes involves. Small, throwaway bit but great stuff. Not to get all My Dinner With Andre on you, but I could’ve watched an entire episode about the crew sitting around eating and telling stories and gotten a lot more out of it.

Next up is the Firefly episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds” so y’all go and watch that one right now because we’re gonna be all articulate about it and don’t want to have to pull no punches. And, just to be sure we’ve got it right, we might have to watch it again. Then again to get down the details of her the best parts. Then we might have to watch it again and take some notes. So y’all do the same.



ScottD: I mentioned a reference book above. I’m a librarian — when a question comes up, I reach for a book first. OK, to be honest I now reach for the keyboard about as often, but my default for most things is still a good book. Here are some of the books I’ve been using to look things up while writing these posts. (What, you thought I was born this insightful? Books!) Note that all of these are available through a public library.

Firefly: The Official Companion, Volume 1 by Joss Whedon et al. Shooting scripts (with translations of the Chinese phrases used) and side articles about the first six episodes. Includes an interview with Joss Whedon, an interview with costume designer Shawna Trpcic, and discussion of Mal’s and Zoe’s weapons.

 

 

Firefly: The Official Companion, Volume 2 by Joss Whedon et al. More shooting scripts, for the latter half of the series. (Note that these are original shooting scripts, and include some scenes that hit the editing room floor.) A different interview with Joss; interviews with production designer Carey Meyer, cinematographer David Boyd, editor Lisa Lassek, music editor Greg Edmonson, and visual effects director Loni Peristere. Also discussion of the theme song, and we get to meet Vera.

 

Finding serenity : anti-heroes, lost shepherds, and space hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly edited by Jane Espenson with Glenn Yeffeth. A wide variety of articles about the Firefly ‘verse, assembled after the announcement that the Serenity movie was to be made. Includes discussions of sex roles, chivalry, those tricky Chinese phrases, and a hi-larious crossover between our crew and the crew of the Enterprise series. We also get to hear Jewel Staite’s favorite bits from the show.

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